Whether Sen. William Ligon’s campus politics bill finds success or failure in the state legislature this year could be about something more than free speech. According to an attorney for the University System of Georgia, a significant problem lies in the penalties.
Ligon, R-St. Simons Island, testified for the legislation — Senate Bill 339 — at a Senate Higher Education Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon.
“The purpose of Senate Bill 339 is to promote, preserve and protect our very important 1st Amendment right to the freedom of speech on our college campuses, which are supposed to be institutions of learning, where ideas are exchanged, they’re tested, they’re debated — and we want to make sure there are environments there which are rich and which promote this right,” Ligon said.
As opposed to the present policy adopted last year by the USG, the bill prescribes penalties enforceable against any student “who materially and substantially interferes with the free expression of others,” which include suspension for a minimum of one year for second-time offenders, and possible expulsion.
“The goal is not to punish, but it’s to protect free speech, so that you clearly understand if you disrupt speakers and you don’t allow them to speak, that there are consequences for them,” Ligon said. “That is not protected free speech.”
There was some talk among senators as to what rises to an offense, with Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, inquiring if substantial booing of referees at university sporting events counted, which Ligon said would not. That reminded committee Chairman Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, of one particular event in January.
“Little levity — when Sen. Jackson was talking about a sporting event, I will tell you right now, after watching some of the officiating in the Alabama-Georgia game, I booed a lot,” Millar said. “Just for the record, OK?”
Edward Tate, USG vice chancellor of legal affairs, said the 26 USG schools have a “duty to ensure that we promote open ideas and academic freedom across all of our campuses,” but that the system had strong concerns about the bill.
“The language would require a difficult and almost untenable position of an administrator — namely, enforcing a state statute attempting to protect speech on the one hand, while likely violating the 1st Amendment rights of a counter-protestor in doing so, and also resulting in an expulsion of the same student whose 1st Amendment rights may have been violated,” Tate said.
Brooke Bowen, USG legal counsel, added that there are already disruptive behavior provisions within university system guidelines for students. Tate noted classifying areas of college campuses as little different than public parks could also provide problems for those schools and the attendees, in a way that actually having an event in a public park would not.
After more than 90 minutes of testimony and discussion, Millar called the meeting to a close, but told those assembled that the committee would hear testimony on the bill again next week in order to allow people to speak who did not receive the opportunity Tuesday.